Letting Go of What Was

I really wasn’t expecting life with my new husband to be rosy forever. I knew better, because I learned the hard way with my first marriage. But it’s too easy to take the good times for granted, when they’re really, really amazing, in an “I-can’t-wipe-this grin-off-my-face” kind of way. You can start to forget just how precious the good times are until they slip away in one tragic, life-shattering moment.

Eight months ago, while at work, I received that phone call. Casey had been injured when a seventy-foot tree he’d been cutting down unexpectedly fell on him, pinning him to the ground. My ears began to ring and all the blood in my body pooled to my legs, making them so heavy I could barely move. My brain began to race with questions… “Is he alive?” “Is he breathing? Conscious?” But all his boss could say was that he was being flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital; he was breathing but unconscious; and it wasn’t good. I hung up, trying to mentally process everything as my co-workers, overhearing my questions, sprang into action. One of them drove me to the hospital, a painfully long forty-five minutes away. As she drove, I began to process for the first time what life would be like without him, unable to fathom that this was REALLY HAPPENING. Could he really die? Why did this happen? Hadn’t I endured more than my share of trials in my life before this? We were still newlyweds. How could I finally meet the man of my dreams and have such a short time to love him?

That day marked the start of our new lives. It started with two very uncertain and rocky weeks in the Intensive Care Unit, his life hanging in the balance. Medical staff later revealed to us that they hadn’t expected Casey to survive. But he beat the odds, despite a spinal cord injury that meant he’d be paralyzed from the waist down, internal bleeding and crushing injuries to his heart and liver, multiple shattered bones, and a gaping chainsaw cut between his legs merely an inch from his femoral artery. We endured as he suffered days of ravaging infections, ventilator-induced pneumonia, uncontrollable pain, and sleepless nights. I can never explain my own agony of feeling utterly helpless to make him more comfortable.

But, he recovered. Three weeks after the accident we were sent to rehab at Craig Hospital, a thousand miles away in Denver, Colorado. He worked hard to gain strength and learn to navigate in his new body. He inspired me every day, fighting to do more, just when I thought he had nothing more to give. He did more than live; he set an example. He took things in stride.

Although our lives are far from carefree now, we are finding our way, one day at a time. What “In Sickness and in Health” meant the day we took our vows was one thing; this was entirely another. What I couldn’t have known at that time was what that would really mean in the face of what happened. No, I couldn’t have fathomed the fact that my burly, tough husband would end up paralyzed, or would have to endure a myriad of associated conditions for the rest of his life. Suddenly we were running scared from the fear of debilitating pressure sores, or UTIs that can quickly migrate to the kidneys. Of blood clots that might travel to his lungs and kill him, with equally dangerous medications to prevent them. Or, God forbid, being propelled out of his wheelchair after hitting a pothole in a crosswalk on a busy street. But as a wife, it was by far the hardest to watch my fiercely independent husband learn to swallow his pride and accept help when he involuntarily lost control of his bowels or bladder, or tipped over backwards in a parking lot. And conversely, it was equally tough to lovingly refrain from helping him in other situations as he tried to once again assert his independence and get out of sticky situations on his own.

I was asked recently if all of the things that I’d seen or had to do affected the way I loved my husband? Was I still attracted to him? I distinctly remember indulging briefly in that fear, while facing head-on his first bowel disaster, in public, without the help of hospital staff. But, as I snapped my rubber gloves on and pulled out the baby wipes, I pushed that fear away—I had to. I got the job done and moved on because he needed me. And when it happened again in the months to come, it got easier. How? Because we laughed our way through it. We reminded each other that this, too, would pass, and so would all the bad and inconvenient things we’ve yet to face. Things will get better. And they do, a little more every day.

There’s no question of whether my love for my husband has changed—it has in both subtle and dramatic ways. Good but unexpected ways. This may sound crazy but we are nearing the point in “our” recovery that we have begun to see the blessings—the good things that have come from this tragedy. Is it actually possible to believe that our life might actually be better than it ever was? If not today, but in the future when things are less fresh and we stop grieving for what was? As we begin to shut the door on yesterday, and become acclimated to our new “normal,” I have to believe the best is yet to come in our marriage. Because it is something real, something strong. Something we nearly lost, making it worth fighting for.

Wedding photo by: Callie Crass, final photo by our friend Kevin Masarik

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  • A-L

    Wow. Thank you for sharing your experience, and your strength, with us. I’m glad to hear that you and your husband are still able to treasure what you have, and feel that the best is yet to come. This is one of those posts that I know I’m going to need to reread, because there’s so much in it. Thank you again.

  • This is at once a terrifying and reassuring post. Terrifying because it makes me (once again) aware of what can happen, what may happen now that I’ve tied my life to someone else.. Reassuring because it shows so clearly that even the worst of accidents can slowly, perhaps painfully, but wholly, evolve into complete fullness of love and empowerment for both of you.

    Thank you for opening up and sharing. It is an amazing story and I admire your strength and his.

    • carrie

      This. I have very few words through the tears except thank you and I am sending much love to you both through the interwebs. Thank you, thank you.

  • Oh, God. This one made me cry really hard. And I’m at work. That last picture of the two of you smiling and looking genuinely happy to be and to be together really got me.

    We are facing a teeny tiny (and completely uncomparable) shadow of something like this right now–my husband has severe arthritis in his hip which is dramatically limiting his ability to do things that are central to his self-esteem and identity. He also has a scary situation in his back that could be fine, or could one day be extremely Not Fine, all due to extreme athleticism. The good news is that there is a surgery for the hip thing, and he is going to have it soon. The funny thing is that the thing that’s hardest on us is not how I feel about him (crazy in love, like I always have been) but how he feels about himself, and how he fears I feel about him. He hid how much pain he was in from me for a long time for fear that I would think he was old and become unattracted to him. I knew that something wasn’t quite right, but instead of knowing it was pain, I thought it might be me. When it finally came out and became “ours” our relationship strengthened another notch.

    The hope in this story is not just your strength and optimism, but your husband’s resilient and determined spirit. I have such respect for both of you. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s an important one.

  • Beautiful story! I’m moved by the way you describe your love evolving and the humor + grace with which you are able to face difficult times.

  • Gillian

    Wow you have me in tears. You are both so strong, and it is clear that your marriage is as well. What an inspiring message. I wish you all the best.

  • That last paragraph is really well-written. It’s inspiring to hear someone speak about something so personal in such a mature, big-picture and positive way.

  • Shawna Elise

    This is very touching. What a wonderful example of strength and love between partners.

  • Lynn

    Oh my. This is so very closely my best friend’s story. Almost a year ago, she was at the beach with her parents, her husband, their 7 month old, and their 15 year old nephew. It’s beach they’d been to so many times without incident. Nate dove into the water and hit a sandbar headfirst. He says he knew immediately what had happened and as he was trying to surface, he kept saying, if I get through this, I’m not going to let this turn me into an asshole.

    He is paralyzed from the chest down and it has been an incredibly difficult year.

    The thing that has struck me in watching Nate and Amber and their tiny baby navigate their new lives is that Amber and Nate are committed to their love and their relationship. Amber says, “I meant it. When I married him, I meant it.” And she does. And so does he.

    It is humbling to see their bravery and joy and know that it is genuine. Amber will never again get a full night’s sleep because every four hours, Nate’s catheter has to be changed, but she says she doesn’t mind because she knows that if she doesn’t get up, the chances of him getting a life-threatening infection are great. So she gets up. And their morning routine is their sacred time. She says that sure they could rush it and she could be much more clinical and efficient but that time is their time as a couple…not as a patient and caregiver. They’ve made a conscious choice to begin every day lovingly.

    I can only hope to have as much grace as Carolyn and Amber.

    • Manya

      When I married him I meant it.


    • meg

      When I married him, I meant it. Holy shit.

      • Lynn

        I should say that in just a few short days, they’ll have been married for 11 years. Having watched their relationship develop from courtship, to marriage, to struggles with infertility to ecstatic baby news to terrified accident to now, I like to believe that they would be remarkably the same even if Nate’s accident had happened in the beginning. They’ve always been those people.

        When I was jobless, and they were getting ready to transition back to their home (after their community came together to renovate it to be safe for him), I spent a week with them…helping clean the house, get it ready for them, etc, but mostly, Amber and I did a lot of talking. She says that she feels like their whole marriage, Nate has been preparing her for something…and that this something was it. He has always pushed her to handle things, to be assertive, to care of herself, to be protective of their marriage and their relationship even when it means fighting against his parents or her parents or whoever…to do those things that she wasn’t comfortable with…and to trust that she could handle it.

        And she can.

    • K

      “if I get through this, I’m not going to let this turn me into an asshole.”

      that is a straight-up stellar man right there.

  • Dianne Callahan

    Indeed, Carolyn is teaching us all something. This is in some ways a greater fear than even your beloved spouse dying – everything that comes with a debilitating accident. Can I handle it? Will he totally change – becoming angry or terminally unhappy? Can I be the one to care for him in ways I imagined only a mom or nurse would? Will he resent me or I him? Can we figure out a way to keep loving, laughing, living? After reading Carolyn’s post, I feel strength and bravery bloom inside me. Honestly, I hope my husband and I don’t ever have to go through what they have endured, but their resilience has taken away some of the fear and replaced it with, as Meg said, something gritty and true. Thank you for being so real and honest and for talking about the parts that most people don’t.

  • Though its obviously not an easy path, your message is so uplifting. It is so good to hear that marriages can evolve and deepen through challenges. I feel like so often we see negative messages about marriage and your words couldn’t be more reaffirming that marriage is worth it. Thank you so much. I wish you both all the best as you continue to grow through the experience. Thank you! Thank you!

    • meg

      Hum. I hadn’t thought about that. The negative messages about marriage can be pretty damn defining, and Carolyn is clearly giving us another side to the story. A really hard one, but a STRONG (and deeply human) one.

  • emrose

    Wow. Just wow. “I have to believe the best is yet to come in our marriage. Because it is something real, something strong. Something we nearly lost, making it worth fighting for.” Amazing.

    • Ake

      My first three words were the exact same as yours.

      I am so grateful to Carolyn for writing this because I made that vow too – in sickness and in health – and this reminds me to be grateful for what I’ve got, honest about what might yet come, and courageous because love really does win.

  • “And conversely, it was equally tough to lovingly refrain from helping him in other situations as he tried to once again assert his independence and get out of sticky situations on his own.”

    This whole post was incredibly powerful (possibly the most moving post ever) but that one line there just jumped out at me. Because when tough sh*t happens to the people I love, all I want to do is fix it, but sometimes I need to step back and let them try to get through bits of it on their own (or with help that isn’t me). Which I’m currently getting a lot of practice at, but it’s a hard, painful thing to do.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your story, and doing it so honestly and beautifully. I This kind of thing is what marriage is about, love and support even in the face of huge life changes.

  • So beautiful. Thanks for this powerful reminder of what really is important.

    This weekend at a wedding one of the readings was from The Velveteen Rabbit about how LOVE makes us real. This seems poignant today in remembering the strength and beauty of true love in the face of all the bad stuff.

    “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

    • meg


    • Class of 1980

      Kristy, I hardly ever cry because of posts. But yours did it.

      • I’ll take that as a compliment. Or you know, pass it on to the author Margery Williams via psychic :).

        • lauraborealis

          Kristy, we had that exact reading from The Velveteen Rabbit in our wedding, too. Re-reading it here brought tears to my eyes again. The Skin Horse just explains real love so well, I think.

  • Aaaannd there are the tears. You have such an inspiring, determined husband, and he has such a brave, caring wife. Thank you for sharing this story.

  • Richelle

    Wow. Carolyn wow. You are incredible. Best wishes as you and your guy continue to master this road. We all tip our hats to your courage and strength

  • Lturtle

    The circumstances of this story are completely different, but the emotions so closely mirror my experience with my husband. In our relationship I am the one who is disabled. For us it was the strength we found together while dealing with my disability that made us sure getting married was the right choice for us. Because if we can handle this, we can handle anything, and come out stronger and more in love on the other side.
    Thank you for a lovely reminder of why we join our lives to another; because the the joys and the sorrows are all made better by sharing them.

  • Oh wow. Crying at work. Thank you, so much. We recently went through a health scare (not anything as terrifying as this, but a scare for us) and we had to talk about a lot of scary things. The one thing we never wavered on was that we would get through it together, no matter what.

    Thank you for sharing your bravery with us. It sounds like the two of you will do just fine. :)

  • PA

    Wow. I had a very similar experience, although involving my father, and those long minutes during the drive, calling the hospital and having them not tell you anything, trying to figure out what that means – I empathize so much. *hugs*

    I am so inspired by both of you – him, being able to swallow his pride and let you take care of him in a way that must be so difficult to accept (“I don’t want her to see this!”), and you, reaching out and supporting him and taking care of him in a way that you could never have imagined.

    I wish you so much luck, and I hope we get to see another post from you a little ways down the road!

  • Vanessa

    I’m sorry for asking this-is it possible to have sex now in your relationship?

    • Carolyn

      Don’t be sorry. Everyone is naturally curious about this; I would be too.

      The answer is really complicated, but not because it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about. I probably could write a whole different post about this topic. :)

      Sexual function varies so much from one spinal cord injured individual to another. The easiest way to put it is that for us, we have a ways to go to physically figure out how to make things work again. And even then, he would not feel things in the normal way he used to.

      I think the part that makes it complicated to talk about is the effect the absence of this form of intimacy has on a relationship. We are still working through this. There are ways to share intimacy without it, but to me it all feels a little one-sided that I feel some “survivor’s guilt.” We’re working on it. In that way we have a lot of healing to do yet.

  • Zephyr

    This. This is beautiful.

    What an inspiring story. Inspiring for your grace and dedication, for your husband’s strength and character and for the partnership that you have. The picture of you holding hands in the hospital spoke volumes.

  • Cali

    Wow. I’m trying not to cry at work right now. Thank you so much for sharing this story. It’s beautiful, and it makes me feel oddly better about the idea that we can ultimately get through anything.

    Our wedding is in October, and I feel like getting engaged has awakened this really bizarre sense of mortality. Maybe it’s something about that whole “till death do us part” aspect… but I’ve had several nightmares about horrific things befalling my fiance. It’s weird, and not a side effect I would ever have expected (not going to lie, I figured the engagement period would be mostly bunnies and flowers)… but this post made me feel way better about it. We have no control, we just need to cherish and nurture our love as much as possible now, and trust that we can work through whatever lies ahead.

    I’m so happy that you two still have each other, and that you are working through this together. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Diane

      Totally know this feeling. Somehow in the last few months, for absolutely no good reason, I worry more about car accidents and random medical catastrophes and all the other ways people die or get really really sick (and BTW, med school did NOT help in that department). It’s like when we formally said that yes, we are going to do this together, we are going to get married, all of a sudden even the idea of A. not being there became frightening on a deeper level.

      • kate

        Totally! Since getting engaged I’ve been making all those doctor appointments that I’d let slide for the past few years and I keep nagging my fiancee to do the same. I keep telling him that I’m just “kicking his tires” to see if I should keep him around. ;-) It’s strange though, the finality of marriage and being engaged definitely awakens some long-ignored thoughts about our own mortality.

      • Another Kate

        Totally know this feeling!! I’d always been sort of vaguely anxious about something terrible befalling my fiance (then boyfriend), but it wasn’t until getting engaged that it REALLY started. In fact, I almost skipped this post because I knew it was going to upset me. Which it did, but it was also so uplifting and inspiring that I’m really glad I decided to read it.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you.

  • RachelC

    Wow – talk about Grace and Strength. This is so inspiring, and yes I agree with Cali – it makes me feel like even IF the horrible possibilities did happen, we could get through it because that’s just what you do. Put on your rubber gloves and make a joke because how else do you survive? Thank you for sharing your story and being honest and brave.

    *so many hugs to you both*

  • Robin

    Thank you so much for sharing this powerful story. I really admire the work and the love that both of you have put into this marriage. Your writing is also wonderful.

    These stories are incredible, and I’d love to hear more of them! Continuing to celebrate marriage when in sickness/health, old age/death resonates with me a lot, having married a much older partner; hearing those stories from people who have been there means a lot to me. This kind of experience and wisdom from other couples is the kind I don’t have real-world models for.

  • Krista

    Very powerful. Thank you for sharing.

  • This has to be one of the most moving posts I’ve read in a while… so inspiring.

  • Class of 1980

    The vow of “in sickness and in health” has been on my mind a lot lately.

    I have a friend whose husband was having a great time on a trip, until his back suddenly started acting up. She had to go retrieve him because he couldn’t drive himself back home.

    That was almost five months ago. In the interim, he had back surgery, which led to endocarditis – Strep bacteria infected a heart valve he’d had replaced. It took months for the doctors to find it and he suffered so long that he went from being able to walk, to being bedridden and unable to even lift his legs.

    He has endured having a life/limb-threatening blood clot removed, six weeks of antibiotics to clear the strep, and then a series of strokes. This week, he will have the damaged heart valve replaced. We hope he survives it since he has lost so much weight and strength. If he does survive, the battle is far from over. He still has the stroke to recover from and the uphill battle of walking again.

    Seeing what his wife has gone through with every unexpected setback, not to mention the sheer physical exhaustion, is humbling. Then too, everyone is affected as we try to support them both with whatever help we can give – whether emotional or practical, such as cooking food or looking up medical information.

    It is hardest now, in the middle, when they don’t know the outcome or what kind of life they are going to live. Or even if he will live at all. But this is living out the wedding vows.

    This is a great post by the OP. I wonder how many people really think about the ramifications of their vows? Life’s tragedies seem so remote on a day of celebration.

  • Thank you. I’m in tears at my desk and thank you for sharing. We have family members who have been through similar life changing moments, so I faced down what it meant to commit “in sickness and in health,” but none of us can ever really know what it will be like until it happens. Reading about your resilience – individually and as a couple – makes the strength feel more potentially real and less theoretical.

  • Florence

    Wow, you’re such an amazing wife and person. I’m so, so, so happy to see someone take “in sickness and in health” so seriously, in a society of (supposedly) disposable people and where relationships are supposed to be perfect and flawless.
    I’ve volunteered a lot with severely handicapped adults, and so many of them have been abandoned by their families and loved ones…
    I really want to thank you for what you’re doing for your husband, for society, and for giving a message of hope to married people everywhere.
    I wish you and your husband all the best for years to come.

  • You are so amazingly awesome. I want to reach out and give you a hug and bring you dinner and talk with you and your husband. You both seem so wonderfully happy despite everything and I can only imagine your love for one another is miles more than you ever imagined! I’m so glad he’s still by your side and that you can laugh together :)

  • Chiara

    I’m in school studying to be an Occupational Therapist. Every day I’m faced with new and different ways that people’s lives change so dramatically, whether it be a physical injury, illness, or a mental health issue. Yours is only one example of what can happen to a person. Living my life in terror isn’t an option, but reading and hearing the stories of people who make it to the other side and are stronger for it is what keeps me going. Thank you so much for this, because I need to hear this and hear it often. I need to know that it’s possible for people to gather together their strength and love and come out with more strength and love than they had before. It helps me to think that I can do it too if I’m ever faced with such a life changing situation.

  • So glad that you both are able to continue finding your way, however overgrown and in need of a machete that way may be. Thanks for sharing your post . . . I’m sure I don’t just speak for myself when I say that my thoughts are going to be with you both for quite some time.

  • Jessica

    Carolyn, if there was a Classiest Person Ever Award you would win. I look forward to reading your next post *hint hint*

  • Such a moving story Carolyn! I wish you and Casey all the best in the world! You are an amazing writer… something to persue! Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Ginny Meharg

    You amaze and inspire me. I love your love story — is that redundant? Keep reaching out to the people who care for you. What a gift you are sharing. Sending lots of love your way.

  • Erin P

    This is my story, except I’m “only” engaged, he’s not paralyzed, and we’re only six weeks into it. Oh, and he has severe brain trauma that is still very much a mystery. This post is something I’ve been searching for on APW for a little while. I’m not ready to write my own post, but I needed to see this. Thanks for sharing. I know reading your post isn’t like looking into the future (because every patient is different…that’s what the doctors keep saying broken record style, right?), but to see you sharing the same things I feel I’m learning right now is a huge reassurance that we will make it through this stronger and better than before – yeah, I totally get that.

    I said I would marry him, and I meant it. Damn it.

    Thanks again for sharing, and positive energy and good thoughts being sent your direction for your continued healing.

    • Carolyn

      And to you as well, Erin! Stay positive, hold on during the hard times, and celebrate even the smallest victories :) I hope to read your story here one day!

  • What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

    We are currently facing a difficult situation, not with one of us (my husband or myself), but with our children. They are 3 1/2 and in need of occupational and speech therapy due to speech and developmental delays and some inconsistent autistic characteristic. Fortunately they are responding beautifully to the therapies and the future now looks brighter than it did at the beginning of the year, but what I mean is that I can understand the fear, and the having to let go of what was, and of what we thought our present and our future would be. And just as in your case, in some crazy way, I see that all of this has in fact brought us blessings: greater awareness in our parenting, and the knowledge that our love as a couple is strong and can weather the storm are some of them.

    One thing that has helped me a lot through this process has been meditation and yoga. I thought I could share the link to the healing mantras and meditations I use, in case you may find it useful: http://www.spiritvoyage.com/blog/index.php/kundalini-mantras-and-meditations-for-healing/
    The RA MA DA SA mantra (11 minutes repetition)can be downloaded for free here: http://www.spiritvoyage.com/blog/index.php/ra-ma-da-sa-free-download-start-new-moon-meditation-today/
    I realize this is not something that everybody likes or wants to do, but it has done wonders for me, and I hope it may help you too, if you decide to give them a try.